Taking Woodstock
dir Ang Lee
scr James Schamus
prd Ang Lee, James Schamus
with Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman, Jonathan Groff, Mamie Gummer, Emile Hirsch, Liev Schreiber, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Dan Fogler, Paul Dano, Kelli Garner
release US 26.Aug.09, UK 13.Nov.09
09/US Focus 2h00
Taking Woodstock
The invasion begins: Martin and Groff

staunton hirsch schreiber
london film fest
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
Taking Woodstock Lively and entertaining, this colourful film recounts the backstage story of the community that inadvertently hosted the 1969 Woodstock music festival. It has some great moments along the way, but as a whole never quite comes together.

Elliot (Martin) leaves New York City to go upstate to help his stubborn parents (Staunton and Goodman) keep their hotel in business. Then he hears that a friend from the city, Michael (Groff), is having trouble getting a permit for his music festival. Elliot happens to already have one in hand, so puts Michael in contact with a local farmer (Levy). And as he helps Michael make the arrangements, he never grasps quite how massive this event is going to be. But then no one did.

Lee is a superb director, and finds something resonant in every scene, drawing out telling details in relationships and situations while letting the actors create characters that continually surprise us, even though the size of the ensemble makes it difficult to get too far from stereotypes. In this sense, Staunton gets the least satisfying role as the narrow-minded shrew, while Martin is stuck with the nice-but-dull guy at the centre of the storm discovering who he really is and where he belongs.

Along the way, other actors get a chance to shine, including Hirsch as a shell-shocked friend just back from Vietnam, Gummer as Michael's free-thinking sidekick, Schreiber as a cross-dressing ex-Marine, and Dano and Garner as hippies who take Elliot on a mind-bending trip in their VW bus. The script is packed with snappy one-liners and witty characters, and it also has a nice structure that builds slowly to the enormous event. Although the pace is somewhat draggy and unfocussed.

Mixing real footage with some genuinely eye-popping recreations, Lee recreates both the groovy vibe and the sense that hundreds of thousands of people are swarming onto these fields. But the mass spectacle and the small story of Elliot's personal journey are at odds with each other, and neither one is very rewarding as a result. We wish we could feel the breakthrough Elliot experiences. But even more, we wish we could watch the performers on the stage. But then we have Michael Wadleigh's seminal 1970 doc for that.

cert 15 themes, language, nudity, drugs 14.Oct.09

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© 2009 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall